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Why colon cancer screenings are important

Why Are Colon Cancer Screenings Important?

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Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, and preventative screenings allow physicians to detect and treat it early on. 

Procrastination is a powerful tendency that affects our lives in countless ways. Delaying or postponing something you know you need to take care of can have long term effects on your emotional health. Studies have shown that procrastination can contribute to higher stress levels among people who put off various tasks. And delaying timely and essential events like medical procedures can leave you at an elevated risk for more severe health problems down the road. 

Not having dinner ready because you didn't make it to the grocery store is one thing, but delaying a screening for preventable cancer is a much more serious procrastination. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. On average, 1 in 20 people are diagnosed with colon cancer at some point in their lives. Still, if you have a first degree (mother, father, sister or brother) family member with colon cancer, that risk can double or even triple.

A major development in the field of public health and cancer prevention took place on May 18, 2021 when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force provided updated recommendations regarding the age to begin screening for colorectal cancer. Adults should initiate screening for colorectal cancer at the age of 45, according to the new guidelines. This is a significant change by the task force, which previously recommended in its 2016 guidelines that screening for this cancer begin at the age of 50.

For those who have family members with colon cancer, screening should start 10 years before the index case (family member) was first diagnosed, resulting in the need to begin screenings well before 50 years old. If there are multiple family members with colon cancer, screening may need to start even sooner!

Why do physicians stress screening? Screening procedures like colonoscopy have been proven in large population studies to prevent colon cancer and allow colon cancers to be discovered at much earlier stages. Screening in totally "healthy" or asymptomatic patients is essential because colon cancer, especially on the colon's right side, can grow significantly with absolutely NO symptoms. The larger or more advanced cancer becomes, the worse the outcome and the more intensive therapy needed to preserve life.

Physicians understand that prevention strategies like colonoscopies are no fun. But an annual screening is so much less unpleasant compared to the actual treatment of colon cancer once it is detected. Since we know that not everyone who should be screened for colon cancer is getting screened, we continuously stress the importance of these preventative tests. If we can catch colorectal cancer early on, it gives us many options in terms of how we can treat cancer. Furthermore, we can move in with treatment before cancer has spread or grown too large to treat quickly.

While colonoscopy is a relatively painless procedure for some, certain patients may wake up with mild discomfort from the air pumped into the colon during the procedure. However, this typically passes reasonably quickly. The most troublesome part of the procedure is usually the preparation to achieve a clean colon. The prep work involves hunger pains and many trips to the bathroom for emptying out, taking place over 12 hours. During the actual procedure, the patient is asleep and feels nothing. If precancerous lesions are found, they are removed during the procedure, thereby reducing a patient's colon cancer risk.

Additionally, new at-home cancer detection tests like fecal immunochemical tests (or FIT Test) and Cologuard can be taken in the privacy of your home. Cologuard identifies altered DNA and/or blood in a person's stool, which is associated with the possibility of colon cancer or pre-cancer. Although not intended to replace a colonoscopy, preliminary screening tests like FIT and Cologuard are extremely helpful in finding colon cancer early when treatment options are still available.

As humans, we all procrastinate sometimes. But your health is your most valuable asset and making time for prevention is one of the worthiest investments you can make. Trust me – you will be glad you did! 

Editor's note: This article was first published on March 9th, 2016.

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